Sunday, December 16, 2007

12/10 - JEKYLL ISLAND DEVELOPMENT: More vacationers could enjoy park > Opinion
By Jim Langford
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/10/07

If you haven't been to Jekyll Island lately, you're not different from most Georgians. Over the past two decades, visitation to Jekyll has dropped 47 percent. Hotels are just half-full, and the causeway is used at 20 percent of capacity.

This is a shame. Georgians are blessed with a beautiful state-owned 5,900-acre island —- more than 75 percent of it protected from development by a combination of laws. Jekyll has a charming historic district and hotel, over 400 acres of golf courses and a new educational Sea Turtle Center. Georgians should want to come to Jekyll as they did years ago. In truth, the most consistent visitors to Jekyll aren't really visitors at all; they are homeowners. About 850 people live on about 210 acres on the island, and most of the roads and other infrastructure serve these residents. Jekyll is our only state park that allows full-time residents.

Vacationers and conventioneers don't return to Jekyll because they find better facilities elsewhere. Jekyll's existing hotels are decades old. Three former hotels are now vacant lots. Acres of asphalt give Jekyll a blighted look —- like an old shopping center waiting for crowds that will never come.

Georgia law requires Jekyll Island to be economically self-sustaining. As visitation declines, so does revenue that pays for things like environmental and cultural preservation.

In September, the Jekyll Island Authority board unanimously selected Linger Longer Communities of Greensboro as its partner to help revitalize the island. Georgia has similar public/private partnerships in other parks, as do other states and the federal government.

On land that is mostly parking lots and outdated buildings, Linger Longer proposes a small 63-acre beach village with three hotels, 79 cottages that include units for rent, a vacation club, a town center and 23 acres of green space.

With assistance from the nonprofit Southface Energy Institute, the village will feature Earthcraft and LEED construction standards. This means recycled water runoff systems, green roofs, multiuse trails and porous surfaces. We believe Jekyll can become a model for sustainable building practices in coastal environments.

The plan envisions a Jekyll for all Georgians: no gated communities, no condo towers and no restricted access to beaches. Seventy-two percent of all new accommodations will be priced below $139 per night per room, and about 50 percent will be priced below $96 per night per room. The village will not displace any existing hotels. Beach access will be enhanced with a new beachside path and 520 public parking spaces within a two-minute walk of the beach.

Dunes will be protected and insulated from development, and state-of-the-art lighting techniques will shield potential turtle nesting habitats.

Though occupying only about 1 percent of Jekyll's total acreage, the village will provide a sustainable economic engine for the rest of the island.

Over the first 15 years, the village will return to the Jekyll Island Authority an estimated $115 million in revenues. Instead of looking for any handouts, Linger Longer proposes paying the Jekyll Island Authority $8 million over the first four years to assist with the transition and investing another $350 million in private funds in the project.

The Authority will use these funds to pay off bonds for a new convention center, if the state decides to make this investment, and to fund other priorities like beach re-nourishment, new multiuse trails, historic preservation, and police and fire protection.

Opponents contend that revitalization will make visiting Jekyll Island more difficult for average Georgians. The opposite is true. The improvements will make Jekyll once again "Georgia's Jewel" and a favored destination that Georgians want and deserve.

> Jim Langford is project executive, Linger Longer Communities.

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